Athene Donald was never the kind of child who liked taking radios to pieces. But she did like to know how things worked - "a more intellectual making sense". And she was only a couple of years into secondary school when she found something that offered the answers. "As soon as I was taught physics I thought, 'this is wonderful'," she says.
Now professor of experimental physics in Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, she has just become a laureate in the For Women in Science awards, set up by L'Oreal, the cosmetics company, and Unesco on the premise that "the world needs science and science needs women". One laureate is chosen per continent each year, and Donald is only the second British scientist to be chosen in the programme's 10-year history.
What caught the judges' attention was her work "in unravelling the mysteries of the physics of messy materials". Her expertise lies in developing techniques to study "soft" materials, from plastics and cement to starch and ice-cream. Recently, she has turned her attention to the way protein molecules stick together, which could help reveal what causes Alzheimer's disease, and is also studying how cells adhere to surfaces, which has implications for the development of hip replacements and prosthetic limbs.
Donald is not your usual kind of cosmetics company public face. She is intense and direct, and wary of the media attention that has followed the L'Oreal award, although prepared to endure it for the cause of science - and women in science.
Her work reflects this pragmatic attitude. It is a physics that has a clear, practical end, rather than the kind that wrestles with the deep philosophical questions involved in the big bang or the intricacies of atoms. Electron microscopy, in the form that her department has pioneered - environmental scanning electron microscopy - is all about getting better images of materials in their natural state so that their structures are easier to interpret. She is, she says, very good at seeing patterns and thinks of her molecules in an anthropomorphic kind of way, in terms of how they are behaving.
"Another phrase for the kind of physics I do is mesoscopic," says Donald. "I'm not terribly interested in individual molecules - and then there is the engineering and macroscopic end - but the mesoscopic is where you've got many molecules, and the manyness matters."
Bridging the gap
Manyness matters to Donald's work in another way, too, because it is so interdisciplinary. Her work on Alzheimer's has involved talking to clinical neuroscientists and biologists to try to bridge the gap between the kind of experiments physicists are doing and what may be useful in a medical context. When she was researching starch, she worked with plant breeders, biochemists and industry to get a better understanding of what was happening. Much of her time has been spent identifying the right people to talk to in the right disciplinary area.
This interdisciplinarity raised eyebrows at first, she says, but has since become much more common. A new building has just opened in Cambridge to house the Physics of Medicine initiative, which is designed to create an environment in which researchers in the physical, life and clinical sciences can mix freely and share ideas. Donald is the initiative's director.
"I suppose my basic philosophy is trying to use physics to solve problems that physicists traditionally have not solved," she says. She started her PhD at Cambridge, studying metals, and followed her husband, a mathematician, to Cornell University to do a postdoctorate, which she hated. "I was the first woman postdoc they'd had, and I don't think my professor was very able to deal with that," she says. "And I think the project bored me. So yes, it was awful. I hope that makes me more understanding of students who have problems, because it's easy to assume that if I'm successful I must always have been successful - and it certainly wasn't true."
Her breakthrough came when she decided to do a second postdoctorate, studying plastics with Ed Kramer, who became an inspiration and a mentor.
She returned to Cambridge when her husband was awarded a research fellowship there, and got a research fellowship herself, followed by a lectureship, replacing someone who had set up a grant in food physics. Through that, she got into starch. By the time their second child was born, it became clear that her career was the one taking off. Her husband put his on the back burner, continuing to work as a mathematician but without a salaried job.
In the early days, the children went to nursery three days a week and Donald and her husband covered the other four days evenly between them. "These days one would say, 'I'm going to work x days a week', and just declare it, but that wasn't at that point available, and so we shared it - and I worked odd hours and nobody noticed," says Donald. What she did try to avoid was travelling. She says that probably affected her international profile, but benefited her relationship with students.
As director of WiSeti, Cambridge University's Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative, Donald is trying to pass on the message that it is possible to work part-time and still get promoted.
Neither of Donald's parents went to university, and there was no family tradition of studying science. Her father was an accountant and her mother was a housewife until her 40s, when she began part-time interviewing for the Greater London Council and ran an Oxfam shop. Yet it never occurred to Donald at Camden school for girls that she shouldn't study physics or that her gender might make it difficult. She recalls being invited to a party at Harrow public school just before her first year at Girton College, and the boys asking her what she did. When she told them she was going to Cambridge to read physics, they ran a mile.
At Cambridge her peers were overwhelmingly male. "You had to think, 'OK, I'm the only girl in this room, I'll get on with it'," she says. She believes that the difficulties for women scientists often come later, "when you're not simply doing the science, when other things come into play".
She is loth to generalise about gender characteristics but says women often do have a more consensus-building approach and that differences in approach can become apparent on, for example, appointment committees. "That is why most appointment committees now say you've got to have at least one woman. But if you are the one woman, and say, 'Well, actually, I think that's rather good', you don't necessarily get listened to."
From being the only woman in the room at a conference, Donald now finds that about 10% of fellow delegates are female. But female physicists are still rare. She says although there is little overt discrimination, "I think there are subtle things that it's very hard to get to the bottom of".
Some of these things are to do with assumptions made, sometimes unconsciously, about women scientists, and she believes people must be made to realise that they may hold preconceived notions - and that these notions may be wrong. But they are also to do with women's feelings of isolation or lack of confidence. While nobody is questioning their ability to do the science, she argues, there may be "softer" issues about how effective they are in a committee meeting full of men, or how they handle a hostile conference hall.
Then there is the problem of getting girls to study physics in the first place. One answer, she says, is more role models, which is why prizes such as the L'Oreal laureate are so important. She is keen to see more young scientists spending time in schools and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm. The media can also play a part, not only through dramas such as Silent Witness, which have had a huge impact on the number of women wanting to study forensic science, but on showing the variety of things that science can do. Donald suggests that teenage girls are often more career orientated than boys, and if they don't understand what a science degree can lead to, they won't do science.
One obstacle is the poor quality of much science teaching. As a bright child, Donald could go to her physics teacher, who had studied the subject to degree level, and ask her anything she didn't understand, and she would be able to answer. Now, many physics teachers do not have a degree in the subject. Nor is maths teaching always of a high enough standard, says Donald. This not only discourages some girls from pursuing the subject to university level but also makes the lives of physics lecturers harder. "It means we can't start from a position you would have done 10 or 20 years ago," she says.
Donald now divides most of her time between teaching and committees; her days in the lab are largely over. This is partly because the kind of equipment she works with is so sophisticated that you really need to work with it every day to be any good with it. But it is also partly because she didn't want to spend her time delving deeper and deeper into the study of starch, which had become her area of expertise.
"I reached a point where it was absolutely clear to me that I wasn't doing anything innovative, and it wasn't therefore exciting," she says. "It is important to know when to stop."
Job Professor of experimental physics, Cambridge University
Likes being able to cycle to work and not being dependent on a car
Dislikes the fact that if a scientist doesn't know Shakespeare they may be derided, but it is acceptable for an arts graduate to plead ignorance of science
Married to Matthew Donald, a mathematician, with two children